Unfamiliar Streets, Katherine A. Bussard

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2014 by Yale University Press (here). Hardcover (9 x 11 inches), 232 pages, with 104 black-and-white and color reproductions. $65. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: So much is frustrating and half-baked about this book that it’s necessary to praise up top what’s useful about it. Katherine A. Bussard, curator of photography at the Princeton Art Museum, has set out to examine the function of the street in four genres—fashion, photojournalism, conceptual art, and fine art—usually segregated from each other and not commonly described as belonging to the history of street photography.

As objects for her unorthodox analysis, she has selected four photographers and four samples of their work: Richard Avedon’s 1948 fashion photos in Paris for Harper’s Bazaar; Charles Moore’s front-line reports from the civil rights march in Birmingham, Alabama on May 7, 1963; Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems, a conceptual-documentary project from 1974-75; and Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Times Square portraits taken between 1993-2000.

Each of these case studies is deserving of an excavation and Bussard’s diligent spadework has uncovered many shards that form a bigger picture. For example, in the chapter on Avedon and fashion, she quotes historians of the immediate years after World War II who noted that haute couture in France was savagely attacked by mobs. The country was still suffering material shortages, including cloth, so Dior’s “New Look” and Balenciaga’s swirling capes and long hemlines seemed wasteful and provoked outrage. Crowds tore the clothes off the bodies of models and mannequins in disgust.

When Bussard concentrates on the photographs themselves, her eye yields valuable insights. Going hour-by-hour and frame-by-frame through Moore’s contact sheets from May 7, 1963, when the Birmingham police and firemen turned snarling dogs and high-pressure water hoses against peaceful black protesters, she increases our respect for their sacrifice and for Moore’s courage in staying so close to the danger that viewers of the photographs could not ignore the brutality.

In studying the layout in Life, where the story was spread across 9 pages, she wonders about the reaction of readers and the thought process of editors who chose as the last picture a group of young black men and women shaking their fingers at the police. As Bussard points out, this gesture has been interpreted by some historians as affirming the fearless independence of a younger generation who were not going to be pushed around. She questions, however, if a photograph of mass finger-wagging couldn’t also be read at the time as pro-police, thereby confirming the bigotry of some of Life’s mostly white readers: the protestors were taunting their oppressors and thus deserved what they got.

In instances like these, when Bussard isn’t constrained by the academic need to make the photographs conform to one theoretical construct or another about urbanity or capitalism, she opens up meanings that might otherwise be hidden.

“Street photography” originated as a genre, according to her research, about 1900. She traces the term back to a technical manual designed for the thousands of enthusiasts who were buying Kodak’s cameras. The manual’s author, Osborne Yellott, wrote that to achieve success on this terrain a photograph should either demonstrate “an intimate acquaintance with the locality” or reveal “sentiment or merely human interest.” In other words, photographers should seek to capture the place and/or the human interactions particular to it.

She then goes on to claim that “records of ‘scene or incident’ unattached to specific locations have come to epitomize the entire genre.” (Italics are mine.) Cartier-Bresson and Winogrand so dominate the genre, in her mind, that in appreciating their work critics highlight only their skill at catching fugitive gestures and have learned to suppress or eliminate any consideration of the places where their pictures were taken.

One need only glance at a pair of recent essays—Peter Galassi’s for the Cartier-Bresson retrospective at MoMA in 2010 or Leo Rubenfien’s for the Winogrand retrospective at SFMOMA in 2013—to disprove Bussard’s assertion. Both curators discuss how the idiosyncrasies of street life in Paris, London, Peking, New York, and Los Angeles decisively influenced how each photographer worked and the meanings of their resulting images for viewers.

Although in a footnote she cites Bystander: a History of Street Photography by Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz, she proceeds as if she could ignore them. I didn’t think it was possible to write about street photography without discussing Atget, Abbott, or Brassai. Each in his own way leveraged their knowledge of “specific locations” to improve their chances when setting up his camera. Bussard in her introduction and afterword manages to write as if they had never existed.

Another puzzling omission from her bibliography is Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, despite his perceptive remarks about diCorcia. In her discussion of his Times Square street portraits she provides the standard history of the area, how its seedy reputation for vice in the ‘60s and ‘70s was replaced by family-friendly corporate signage and towering electronic screens under Giuliani in the ‘90s.

According to her essay, diCorcia’s photos appear more doleful since 9-11. She endorses the views of writers who now read the faces of his stoic, chiaroscuro figures as “wounded” by a city-wide grief. While history alters the context of any event, his passersby seem strongly indrawn and impervious to what happened years before miles from midtown. Only in passing does Bussard discuss these monumental snapshots, all of which were taken without the pedestrians’ consent or understanding, in relation to the more pertinent social upheaval in New York urban life since 9-11: the ubiquity of cameras and the growth of a surveillance culture.

As with too much academic art writing, Bussard’s audience seems to be other academics. It can be almost impossible to discern from the jargon about social spaces and linguistic codes what is being argued. Even if one could make more transparent the opaque sentences, the suspicion lingers that the conclusions would be obvious or based on flawed assumptions.

Academics, who supposedly demand that their students think critically, tend to quote wholly uncritically anything written by Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Benjamin Buchloh, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, and Susan Sontag. Bussard is no exception to this lamentable trend. Isn’t it time that theory-besotted writers, having over the last half-century neutered Guy Debord and other ’60s insurgents by making them required reading for Ivy League students, found a less respectable group of bien-pensants to treat as holy writ?

Bussard writes well about Avedon’s photographs in Paris, what he gained by choosing the 2 ¼ camera and how intuitively he translated Parisian stone and light, and couture’s extravagant lines, into black-and-white on the magazine page. These are some of the most original fashion photographs ever made. In one of them, staged at the Place de Trocadéro, he has isolated a model’s leg sheathed in a furry Perugia shoe—the toe touching the ground, the high heel slightly raised—against a background of blurred pedestrians and an out-of-focus Eiffel Tower.

Bussard’s joyless prose is not tailored to show off Avedon’s witty photographs to good advantage. She dwells on the impracticality of the fashions and thinks they were perhaps designed to entice women into being consumers again after working in factories during the war. She’s a buzz kill, unwilling to acknowledge that fashion photography, whether staged in the streets or in the studio, is based on impracticality and artifice, escapism and folly.

As Avedon’s editor Carmel Snow noted, “Thousands of women <buy> Harper’s Bazaar not because they can afford the most expensive fashion we show but because they are fascinated by the new (in styles, in photography, in art, in writing)…”

Would that Bussard’s essays exhibited the same bold attitude.

Charles Moore, Martha Rosler, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Richard Avedon, Yale University Press

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